Luis Gutierrez, fierce fighter for immigration reform

For a moment there, Luis Gutierrez might be just another guy, squinting against the rain, trying to flag a cab on Independence Avenue.

On this day, he doesn’t bother with the little lapel pin that signifies he’s a somebody on Capitol Hill. He walks sans entourage. No junior staffer to clutch the umbrella he’s wrestling to control in the wind. No trailing press secretary. He doesn’t mind.

The 59-year-old Illinois congressman stands 5 feet 6 inches tall, which is only one reason he got his nickname, “El Gallito” — the little fighting rooster. Not minding is the other reason.

During two decades in Congress, Gutierrez has managed to tick off Republicans and his fellow Democrats. Once, he challenged another member of Congress who’d been razzing him — he won’t say whom — to a fist fight in the House cloakroom. “You want to go to the gym and prove something?" El Gallito said. “I’ll whip your a-- with one hand.”

“Conflict is part of the fun,” Gutierrez writes in his just-published memoir, “Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill.” The book, in parts, reads like a political indictment of President Obama, portraying him as a defensive, cavalier and calculating politician who betrayed his promises on immigration reform.El Gallito isn’t exactly challenging the president to a fist fight, but he does seem eager to draw the White House into the ring — rhetorically. The administration’s new focus on the issue, now that the government is running again, might give him a chance.

But right now, all Gutierrez wants to do is get to the Lincoln Memorial, a symbolically resonant spot to chat about his life. He’s so busy talking that no cabs are stopping.

A raspy voice interrupts him in mid-sentence. “I’ve got your money!” Charlie Rangel, the New York Democratic congressman, calls from the back seat of an idling car.

Gutierrez, as it turns out, lent Rangel five dollars to get out of jail three days earlier when they were both arrested, along with dozens of other protesters, for blocking a street near the Capitol during an immigration rally.

He’s had experience getting arrested and always makes sure he has enough money to post bond. He’s been locked up for protesting U.S. military bombing exercises off Vieques Island in Puerto Rico and, in 2011, while demonstrating about immigration reform in front of the White House — another public taunt of Obama.

“I knew a long time ago I wasn’t going to be at the head table at a state dinner,” Gutierrez says during a thoughtful moment later in the day. “I knew I wasn’t going to get a good seat on Air Force One. I’m not going to play a round of golf with the president. I get that.”

The immigration warrior

Gutierrez’s centrality in the nation’s immigration debate prompts some activists to describe him as a Martin Luther King Jr. of the Latino community. It’s a nod to the tens of thousands of immigrants he and his staff have helped fill out citizenship applications and to his persistence in the often heated fight over immigration reform.

Because his family came from Puerto Rico, citizenship was never an issue for them. But immigration consumed him as he listened to the problems of his many Mexican constituents, as well as other Latinos around the country.

Gutierrez is an “equal-opportunity pisser-offer,” says Viviana Hurtado, founder of “The Wise Latina Club” blog and a national Hispanic opinionmaker.

In 1993, during Gutierrez’s first term in Congress, he introduced himself to his new colleagues by infuriating them — the Ds and the Rs. President Bill Clinton was freezing pay for federal workers. But the Congress that was applauding Clinton’s fiscal austerity was exempted from the freeze. Gutierrez thought that was hypocritical, and his successful crusade to make House members live by the same rules as the rest of federal workers got him major airtime, culminating with a star-making turn on “60 Minutes.” Correspondent Morley Safer called him a “congressional Don Quixote, tilting at sacred windmills.”

“My colleagues’ reaction wasn’t chilly. It was sub-arctic,” writes Gutierrez in the compelling and plainspoken memoir that he wrote after talking for hours into a tape recorder. “It cemented my reputation as a troublemaker.”

One example: William Ford, the veteran Michigan Democrat, glared at the freshman congressman on the Capitol subway and told him: “Don’t you ever put your hand in my pocket again.”

Now the man Gutierrez seems most adept at pissing off — also most aggrieved by, most frustrated by and, yet, most eager to persuade — is Obama. Gutierrez reserves a sizable chunk of his 413-page memoir to criticism of his fellow Chicago Democrat, whom he’s supported in campaigns but clashed with over immigration policy.

Six months into Obama’s first term, the president who campaigned on immigration reform “hadn’t lifted a finger” to change immigration law, Gutierrez writes.

As time passed, Gutierrez became even more incensed about the record numbers of deportations of undocumented immigrants under Obama. Then and now, he has been touring the country, often speaking before large, cheering crowds. And the White House has been taking notice, he writes.

After a bipartisan White House meeting during Obama’s first year in office, Gutierrez writes, the president pulled him aside for a private chat in the State Dining Room. “Why don’t you get off my back?” the president told him, Gutierrez writes.

By 2010, Gutierrez and other Hispanic lawmakers were so frustrated that they contemplated blocking Obama’s landmark health-care legislation as a way of forcing the president to take action on immigration.

“Help me get this done, and I will work with you on immigration,” Gutierrez writes that Obama told the impatient lawmakers.

Later, Gutierrez writes, he “wasn’t surprised when the earnest immigration promises Obama made when he needed our support on health care evaporated in the Washington mist. Health care passed, and so did the president’s commitment.”

Gutierrez’s relationship with the White House was getting worse. Once, he writes, Obama confidante and top adviser Valerie Jarrett tried to “bully” him into canceling a news conference and a national immigration tour. In a clipped phone call, Jarrett said that the president was popular in Gutierrez’s district. Gutierrez says she told him that he “should be worried about political fallout” if he continued to criticize the administration.

A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about Gutierrez’s characterizations of Obama or his interactions with Jarrett.

Eventually, Obama took action on deportations, announcing during his reelection campaign last year that the administration would stop deporting so-called “Dreamers” brought to the country as young children by their undocumented parents. Gutierrez had been urging similar action and he was happy that the president took that step, but he posits that Obama was pressured into action by Republicans who were floating their version of such a bill.

Gutierrez says he didn’t know the announcement was coming. His staff called him in Puerto Rico, where he was taking a few days off.

“That was Barack Obama’s way of saying, ‘I made this decision,’ ” Gutierrez says. “That was Barack Obama saying, ‘You didn’t have anything to do with it.’ ”

Last week, after the president said immigration reform would be a top priority again, Gutierrez called his remarks “extremely helpful” and expressed hope that “we can get immigration reform legislation passed in the House and signed into law.”

The cabbie connection

In the cab that he finally manages to hail, Gutierrez is full of questions for the driver. Do you have health insurance? (No.) Do you own the cab or lease it? (Own it.)

Taxicabs are a fundamental motif in the Gutierrez narrative, a saga of ascension from poverty to Capitol Hill. His father drove a cab. As a young man, he drove a taxi to earn enough money to buy a plane ticket to Puerto Rico so that he could court his future wife. (They met in Chicago but were separated when her family moved back to Puerto Rico.) In the early days of his marriage, he again drove a Chicago taxi, this time to support his family.

It was a beast, that taxi. A hulking, metal beast. Vinyl everywhere. No radio. His customers would lean over and say, “Hey cabbie, you got air?” Gutierrez recalls.

“Yeah, I got air,” he’d respond. “I got 230 air. I got 460 air.”

“You got what?” they’d ask.

“Yeah, you lower all 4 windows and I drive 60 mph you got 460 air; you lower two windows and I drive 30, you got 230 air.”

Gutierrez laughs. Get him started on taxis and he’ll laugh all afternoon.

At one time, he says, driving a taxi might have seemed like his only option. He was born in Chicago to parents who struggled to make a living. They’d come to the city from Puerto Rico looking for something better.

Even though Gutierrez had lived his entire life in the United States, he was acutely aware of being “the other.” In seventh grade, he bought hair relaxer to straighten the tight curls that seemed to mark him as distinctly Latin; his friends did, too, showing up at school with hair transformed as if “a golden-haired Caucasian fairy had come in the middle of the night and tapped your curly hair with her wand.”

When Gutierrez was 15, the family moved back to Puerto Rico. In Chicago he’d been marginalized as “a lazy Puerto Rican.” In Puerto Rico, his poor Spanish skills tarred him as some kind of “gringo.” His only thought was: “I want to go home.”

He returned to attend college in New York and later in Chicago. He was the one with the Che Guevara and Malcolm X posters on his dorm walls, the one who wanted Puerto Rico to disengage from the United States and become an independent nation. He worked a succession of grimy jobs — busboy, dishwasher, janitor, pest exterminator. By the early 1980s, when a singular moment of rage turned him into a politician, he was a social worker in Chicago.

On that night, a group of then-Congressman Dan Rostenkowski’s precinct captains knocked on his door. They were Democrats, but they wanted him to put up a sign for the Republican mayoral candidate. Gutierrez suspected them of racism for not supporting the African American Democrat who eventually won that race: Harold Washington. Gutierrez chased them down the street, yelling at them, then threw himself into campaigning for Washington, who became such a mentor to him that he later named one of his two daughters Jessica Washington Gutierrez, in the mayor’s honor.

The next year, Gutierrez was asleep on a downstairs couch when he heard a crash. It was 3:15 in the morning. His house was on fire. Someone had thrown a brick through his window, then tossed in a Molotov cocktail.

Gutierrez and his wife and daughter escaped unhurt, but their home was badly damaged. He never found out who did it.

“I can say honestly that I’ve forgiven,” he says one afternoon in a hallway outside the House floor, where he’s just sprinted to cast a vote. “That was then, this is now.”

Mid-thought, he pops off the bench and bear-hugs Raul Grijalva, the Arizona Democratic congressman. Grijalva was arrested with Gutierrez and Rangel at the immigration demonstration earlier in the week, and they’re still animated by that moment of civil disobedience.

“Una buena memoria,” Gutierrez says as Grijalva moves on. A good memory.

Gutierrez takes a few steps toward the exit and runs into John Lewis, the Democratic congressman from Georgia and African American civil rights legend. Lewis was arrested with Gutierrez, too.

“He led me there,” Lewis says in that low, sonorous voice of his, nodding toward Gutierrez.

Lewis has been arrested dozens of times, tracing a line through the history of the civil rights movement. But does getting arrested accomplish anything now? Does being a troublemaker pay? Gutierrez thinks so.

 
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